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The HONY effect: How 'Humans of New York' is altering lives

Hugely popular photographic blog has eight million fans on Facebook and several spin-offs

Natasha Culzac
Thursday 17 July 2014 16:11 BST
The Humans of New York blog has millions of readers
The Humans of New York blog has millions of readers

You’ve got hundreds of Facebook friend requests, your phone’s incandescent with text messages, and you’ve got countless emails from complete strangers telling you how they admire your style or sympathise with what you’re going through – but you weren’t on the X Factor, nor were you pictured falling out of a black cab with a Swedish prince. No, your picture was simply taken by New Yorker Brandon Stanton and uploaded onto his blog.

In 2010, when Stanton found himself without his banking job and having just got his hands on his first semi-professional camera, he began taking pictures of complete strangers in the Big Apple with the aim of creating a sort of photographic census.

Humans of New York (Hony), a personal project which has spiralled into an international phenomenon, has since racked up eight million fans on Facebook and hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and Tumblr.

Stanton uploads his street portraits with a fragment of the conversation he held with his subject, but like a laparoscopic surgeon, he somehow extracts highly sensitive secrets thanks to a cautious and friendly approach that baffles his admirers.

“Just how does he get closed-off city dwelllers to splurge their deepest and darkest thoughts?” is the kind of muse that Facebook commenters often make on his posts, or, as he explained to a TEDx audience last year, just how does he “deflect awkwardness”?

Hony founder Brandon Stanton on the streets

Earlier this month, one of Stanton’s volunteers revealed that a tumultuous relationship he had been in, ended tragically when the partner spontaneously died from a seizure during one of their “little breaks” – it was four months before he found out his partner had passed away and when he did, the family had no idea that he existed.

This kind of candid story is littered throughout the group’s feed on a daily basis.

It appears that the blog panders to our inherent curiosity and perhaps even just helps us remember that everyone else is just as dejected, messed-up or as weird as ourselves, but what of these honest participants days, weeks or months after they’ve been profiled?

After all, these people did not seek Stanton out - they were merely walking through the grid of New York en route to work or a date, for example, when stopped by the photographer.

They haven’t applied for a TV show, nor are they even particularly newsworthy. They’re just average people in a serendipitous situation.

Take a teenage band arduously trying to raise its profile. The father of the drummer was on a cigarette break when photographed by Stanton on 4 July.

Jonathan Schneeweiss after his Hony interview

He had told the inquisitive photographer: “I'm the manager of my 14-year-old son's heavy metal band. I pay for everything and handle promotion. Work is stressful, so it's my release.”

In the comments section, after the picture had been uploaded, Stanton gave a link to the band’s Facebook Page.

“After the picture was spread around, we had a massive surge of likes,” Jack Rose, Xero Gravity’s bass player, told The Independent.

“On the morning of 4 July we had 2,026 or so likes on Facebook - 12 hours later we hit 22,000.

“It was massive and we had people from all around the world interested in us and talking about us. It was insane. The only negative things that arose were people getting confused of the roles of people in or around the band.

“For example, people were saying that our manager, which is our drummer Steven's father, paid for everything and paved our way without us paying any dues, which is completely false. We all earn money together, have money saved up from concerts and merch, and have jobs and try to put anything we can to the band.”

The boys are now releasing their debut EP in August.

It was the same for artist Benjamin Herndon, who had never heard of Hony. During the chance encounter in Grand Central Terminal in December, he had imagined that Stanton “was just working on some school project or something.”

Stanton, who was “very well practised,” he says, asked him some intense personal questions including what his biggest regret was.

He replied that day saying he was struggling to get his “subtle” work noticed amidst a cacophony of “aggressive imagery” and had lost his self-confidence.

“What followed was a several-week-long flood of emails, most of which were from people who were offering words of support to what I do,” Herndon said.

“I also received many inquiries from people interested in buying my work, and a few people did. There were offers of shows – one forthcoming this fall – and of magazine features, etc.

“Over all, it was incredibly encouraging, and came at a time when my confidence was dampened a bit by working on applications to graduate school – I'll be starting a program at the Rhode Island School of Design this fall.”

As expected for online forums, not all reactions are positive or judgement free. The geniality and accepting nature of Hony’s community usually drowns out any hurtful comments eventually, but there have been a few occasions where the person – or their friend – has leaped onto the site to defend them following pinpricks of criticism.

And yet the response can be so overwhelming that it helps to force significant change.

Earlier this year a mother was photographed by Stanton, telling him about a situation at her child's school where some pupils were on their way towards qualifying for a scholarship - until the school relieved one of its foreign languages teachers due to finances.

One of the caveats to getting a scholarship is the requirement to have undergone three years of language teaching.

A bitter row between parents, pupils and senior staff ensued, but it was only until Annette Renaud was photographed on the subway and her message broadcast to hundreds of thousands via Hony that the issue intensified and movements to appease the students were hastened.

The photograph captions can say anything from “I hate fractions” to “I have a special needs brother who just moved out of the house today. It's the first time I've really been alone. And to be honest, I can't say whether I'm sad or relieved.”

For Erick Urgiles “the feedback was great.” He creates ‘puddlegrams’ – pictures taken using the reflection of water – and was pictured by Stanton doing just that on 28 February, leading to 4,000 new Instagram followers in the subsequent few days.

The picture of Stanton taken by Erick Urgiles during their meeting

“If it wasn't for [Stanton], I'm sure puddlegrams would not be as big. My @puddlegrams page was featured by Buzzfeed a few weeks back,” he said.

Science fiction writer, Jonathan Schneeweiss, said he was “completely and utterly floored” by the reaction to his appearance on Hony.

Hundreds of people emailed him directly to praise his stories while he achieved a "modest following" on his fan page.

"My story got somewhere around 8,000-10,000 hits (5,000 in eight hours) and my blog received about 1,500 visitors over the course of about two days," he said.

The fact that his quote, which had addressed the value of homework as a child, had sparked a discussion "about the effectiveness of the modern education system" was "just plain awesome," he said.

Hony is now a bestselling book - published in October 2013 - with spin-offs in cities around the world including London, Leeds and Brisbane.

In fact Herndon said that the majority of the emails he received were from people not actually from New York.

"I've speculated that perhaps Hony has a larger audience outside of the city because of a romantic media portrayal, or, on the other hand, that just as many New Yorkers saw the posting and were either less interested in my work critically, or too busy to comment directly to me.

"My chance encounter with Brandon that evening in December certainly gave rise to a sense of peace with what I do, because it allowed me to see that the work affects people in a very positive way. That was the biggest blessing."

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